Guest Voices: Emily Klehm on Lifesaving Building Design

South Suburban Humane Society’s new resource campus will open its doors next month. Executive Director Emily Klehm recaps—and celebrates—the 15-year journey.


The truth is that I have been building the new South Suburban Humane Society animal shelter resource campus in my head for fifteen years. My oft-repeated joke is that I started work at SSHS at 9 am on December 1, 2007, and 10 am on December 1, 2007, was when I realized the organization was desperate for a new building.  It’s been a long time coming—and finally, we will open our doors at the new 19,000-square-foot building in Matteson, IL, in June 2022!

Every time I visited a new city or attended an animal welfare conference, I went to the local animal shelters.  I collected every piece of inspiration possible, from the Hawaiian Humane Society and Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando to SPCA of Texas and Wisconsin Humane Society and MANY points in between.  Of course, we incorporated best practices regarding sanitation design, heating/cooling and air exchanges, and life-safety. The whole building is on a sprinkler system, for example, and there is a generator for power outages.

But these four design choices were important to us with our limited budget:

You get one chance to make a first impression.  Our adoption center lobby is the showcase of the building. With high ceilings, natural light, glass views into our Education and Training Room on one side and glass into the cat adoption areas on the other, the lobby is designed to give guests that “wow” factor. This is specifically so people feel that this is a happy place where they want to come adopt, volunteer, and donate.  The days of the “pound” are long gone, and people need to see that immediately.

Cats and dogs are separate.  We know that barking is stressful for cats, and we know that the worst thing for cats in a shelter is stress.  Our cat areas are far away from any dog housing. Cat adoptions are also often different than dog adoptions and there’s a separate comfortable space for cat adoptions to take place.

But both cats and dogs need light and fresh air.  Skylights and windows are everywhere we could afford to put them.  There are huge fenced-in areas for dogs to play, and a mile of walking trail around the building that connects to a 30-mile community hiking/biking trail.  Cats have access to a fully enclosed catio.

And most importantly:

The campus is a one-stop resource for pets and the people who love them.  Our Intake area is separate, and has been renamed the Resource Center.  It will be stocked with food, supplies, and human social services information to help people keep their pets.  The Resource Center is adjacent to our two clinics: the high-volume spay/neuter clinic and the low-cost veterinary services clinic.  So, from adoption to vet care, our communities will know where to come if they need pet support. 

There are several other ways we’ve tried to take the principles of Human Animal Support Services and incorporate them into our building design. Fostering is one of the first options people will see when they walk in the building, and we have several showcase rooms that will say “Take me home to foster.”  We’ve built the ability to have a call center, where people can get help with their pets. Even the artwork we’ve selected, thanks to HeartSpeak, is intentionally inclusive of our diverse communities and welcoming. 

The pets and people of Chicago’s South Side have always deserved a building worthy of the life-saving and community-focused initiatives of South Suburban Humane Society.  And now they finally will have it.

P.S. Heading to Chicago for The Spring Conference for Animal Welfare Advancement? Says Emily, “Please feel free to contact me and come out to the south side for a visit–in June or any other time!”


Emily Klehm, CAWA, has served as CEO of South Suburban Humane Society in Chicago Heights for fifteen years. In her tenure, the organization established a thriving high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinic, partnered to open a low-cost veterinary services clinic, opened an additional adoption center, and has transformed the shelter from a 50% live release rate to a 90% rate. In 2020, Klehm secured a $7,000,000 government grant and led a capital campaign that raised an additional $2,400,000 to build a new animal shelter campus scheduled for completion in June 2022. Her previous background is in community organizing and nonprofit fundraising. She shares her home with Charlie, Doug, and Stripes, her three adopted pets from SSHS.


'Guest Voices: Emily Klehm on Lifesaving Building Design' have 3 comments

  1. May 4, 2022 @ 8:31 pm Christie Smith

    Congratulations, Emily. You have worked so hard on this project. Very glad to see all your successes.

  2. May 5, 2022 @ 11:30 am Lisa K. Kitchens

    Chicago SO needs this. Thank you!

  3. May 5, 2022 @ 12:22 pm Jacob Caldwell

    Very smart to visit many other facilities to see what works and what doesn’t. Sprinkler system and generator will definitely pay off. Congrats on the new shelter and hope it serves your staff and community well! I just read about your work securing the $7m gov’t grant. Great work! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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